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Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011
POW camp survivor promotes reconciliation
By ALEX MARTIN
In the nearly two years he spent working in a lead mine near the Kamioka prisoner-of-war camp in Gifu Prefecture, Robert J. Vogler Jr.'s weight dropped from 95 kg to 36 kg as a result of the slave labor and lack of food.
The World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, now 90, was one of the 594 POWs held at the camp, according to the POW Research Network Japan. Of them, 85 died before the war ended.
But the long friendship Vogler developed with one of the Japanese guards, Masao Okada, gave him reason to eventually return to the camp in 1997, and even though Okada had passed away four years earlier, the trip fostered a sense of forgiveness.
"He was friendly, and we got along great. Once, for an 'otoshidama' (New Year's gift), Okada gave me an egg — I hadn't eaten an egg in three years," Vogler recalled Friday during an interview with The Japan Times.
Vogler, along with six other POWs and their family members, is currently in Japan on a eight-day visit that began Oct. 16 as part of the second delegation of American POWs invited by the government.
In September 2010, the government made an official apology to the first delegation for the suffering they endured in the camps.
Vogler, who is leading the delegation, described the latest trip as "a step forward" that is helping promote reconciliation and friendship with a people who were once their foes.
The delegation has visited the sites of former POW camps, including one in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, and another in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture.
"This trip to Japan is beyond my expectations and my beliefs that this could ever take place," Vogler said during a news conference Friday at the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
The trip gave Vogler the first chance since 1997 to meet up with Okada's family, with whom he has been corresponding for many years.
About 27,000 U.S. service members, as well as tens of thousands of other Allied personnel, plus Chinese and Filipinos captured by Japan during the war and Koreans rounded up from the peninsula, were forced into slave labor at industrial and military camps, where the hellish conditions claimed thousands of lives.
Vogler, who lives in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940 and survived the notorious Bataan Death March before being shipped to Mukden (now called Shenyang), northeast China, aboard the Tottori Maru in October 1942. He was transferred to the Kamioka POW camp in May 1944 and worked at the lead mine until he was reassigned to a different section because he sustained an injury.
There, he met Okada, one of the guards responsible for overseeing the POWs.
Vogler soon developed a special friendship with Okada, who would go out of his way to provide him and other POWs with food and other amenities whenever he could, in stark contrast to the other guards at the camp.
"He was a camp guard, injured in China by a grenade. We generated a new language to talk to each other, he didn't speak a word of English, and I didn't speak a word of Japanese either," Vogler said.
When the Kamioka camp was liberated in August 1945, the two men parted after exchanging addresses. But Vogler soon lost contact with Okada, and it was not until 1961 that they managed to get back in touch with each other, by which time Vogler had mustered out.
With the help of an acquaintance, Vogler sent a letter to the mayor of Kamioka, soliciting his help in finding Okada and asking the mayor to give Okada his address in the United States. Okada soon wrote to him.
"I got a letter from Okada. It said, 'I see you are living in the near frontier in the USA.' " Vogler recalled with a chuckle.
The two men continued to exchange letters and photos of each other, detailing what was going on in their lives. But while Vogler thought of visiting Okada at Kamioka, memories of the torment he endured as a POW prevented him from traveling to Japan.
At one point, Vogler's job at General Dynamics Corp. brought him to Tokyo, where he briefly talked to Okada over the phone.
"But I still couldn't do it (visit Kamioka)," Vogler said.
After Okada died in 1993, Vogler continued to correspond with his family. Three years later, Vogler and his wife had the chance to host a Japanese exchange student for several weeks, and the experience helped soften his heart and made him decide to visit Kamioka in May 1997.
The visit turned out to be an emotional one for Vogler.
"We went to the Kamioka mayor's office, and they flew the American flag. Then we went to the mine, which was still operating back then, and they also flew the American flag. And then we went to a local school, where the kids sang us three songs they had learned in English," Vogler said.
"They also had the American flag, and tears were running down — if you had a hard heart, it was now soft," he said.
While his memories of the POW camp will always haunt him, Vogler feels that the delegation's visit and his 1997 trip to Kamioka were helpful in coming to terms with the years he spent as a POW.
"Some good can come from forgiveness," he said.